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August 30, 2014

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of Saturday’s games

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Chuck Burton / AP

Mercer guard Kevin Canevari (3) dances with team mates after the second half of an NCAA college basketball second-round game against Duke, Friday, March 21, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C. Mercer won 78-71.

March Madness in Las Vegas

Patrons celebrate Dayton's upset of Ohio State during the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament Thursday, March 20, 2014 during a party at the South Point. Launch slideshow »

Wisconsin and Pittsburgh can’t compete with Mercer as the toast of the opening two days of the NCAA Tournament anywhere except Las Vegas.

No. 14 seed Mercer pulled the biggest stunner of the round of 64, beating No. 3 seed Duke 78-71 as a 13-point underdog. The Bears rightfully hog the headlines, but still trail the Badgers and Panthers in terms of outperforming expectations.

No. 2 seed Wisconsin defeated the spread by a tournament-high 26.5 points in a 75-35 victory over No. 15 seed American. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh was close behind after beating its minus-5.5 number by 23.5 points in a 77-48 dismantling of No. 8 seed Colorado.

Mercer is the third and final member of the 20-point covering club. The Bears’ upset is all but assured to go down as the biggest upset of the tournament.

Starting with today’s round of 32 games, the numbers get a lot tighter. Whereas the average spread Friday was 9.5 points, it’s just six today.

Pittsburgh’s and Wisconsin’s spreads, coincidentally, fall almost exactly there. They’re two of 16 teams lacing back up looking to advance to the Sweet 16, and maybe cashing some tickets in the process.

I could go for some ticket-cashing after finishing 16-19-1 against the spread picking every game in the regional previews. A consolation is my 3-1 record in top-confidence plays. I’ll continue to briefly analyze and pick every game of the tournament — mostly for entertainment purposes, as betting on the entire board is a losing strategy— in order of confidence here.

Check out Saturday’s selections below.

No. 9 seed Pittsburgh plus-6 over No. 1 seed Florida For the third straight game, the Gators pulled out a relatively close victory despite a sloppy performance in a 67-55 win over Albany as a 21.5-point favorite. It’s poor timing for a downturn, as the underrated Panthers haven’t lost against the spread in five games. Pittsburgh also boasts the most efficient offense Florida has seen in months.

No. 3 seed Syracuse minus-7 over No. 11 seed Dayton Dayton’s due for a letdown after an emotional victory over an in-state rival it was eager to play. Syracuse has a de facto home court advantage in Buffalo, and seemed to use the support to regain some moxie in a blowout 77-53 victory over Western Michigan as an 13-point favorite Thursday.

No. 12 seed Harvard plus-7.5 over No. 4 seed Michigan State Harvard’s Tommy Amaker is one of the few coaches in the tournament capable of matching wits with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. The Crimson should shoot better than the 43 percent they posted in the upset over Cincinnati, and won’t allow Adriean Payne to take over as much as he did in the Spartans’ lucky cover over Delaware.

No. 2 seed Michigan minus-4.5 over No. 7 seed TexasThe Longhorns have faded late in the season, failing to cover in five of their last six. Looks like a nice spot for Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to cure some of their recent offensive ills.

No. 12 seed North Dakota State plus-3.5 over No. 4 seed San Diego State Is it certain the Aztecs’ Mountain West Conference prepared them any better for the tournament than the Bison’s Summit League? Concerns have amplified after both Mountain West teams to reach March Madness looked mediocre, going 0-2 against the spread, in the round of 64.

No. 2 seed Villanova minus-3.5 over No. 7 seed Connecticut UConn had one of the flukiest round of 64 victories with an 89-81 comeback overtime win against Saint Joseph’s as 5-point favorites. Villanova will course-correct with its usual heady shot selection and defense.

No. 2 Wisconsin minus-5 over No. 7 seed Oregon As the highest over/under on the board at 143.5 points might hint, this is a favorite for the most exciting game of the day. It also might be the toughest to call. The Ducks have played great late in the season, but the Badgers did all season. Slight lean to the larger sample size.

No. 5 seed Saint Louis plus-9 over No. 4 seed Louisville The betting market may have over-adjusted for Louisville’s tear coming into the season. The Cardinals will win but the Billikens play strong enough defense to not get blown out. Three of Louisville’s five losses on the season have come against teams that rank in the top 25 of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency metric. Saint Louis rates eighth.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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